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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Asia: Vols. XXI–XXIII. 1876–79.

Syria: Zarephath

The Widow of Zarephath

By Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791–1865)

THERE fell no rain on Israel. The sad trees,

Reft of their coronals, and the crisp vines,

And flowers whose dewless bosoms sought the dust,

Mourned the long drought. The miserable herds

Pined on, and perished mid the scorching fields,

And near the vanished fountains where they used

Freely to slake their thirst, the moaning flocks

Laid their parched mouths, and died.
A holy man,

Who saw high visions of unuttered things,

Dwelt in deep-musing solitude apart

Upon the banks of Cherith. Dark-winged birds,

Intractable and fierce, were strangely moved

To shun the hoarse cries of their callow brood,

And night and morning lay their gathered spoils

Down at his feet. So of the brook he drank,

Till pitiless suns exhaled that slender rill

Which, singing, used to glide to Jordan’s breast.

Then, warned of God, he rose and went his way

Unto the coast of Zidon. Near the gates

Of Zarephath he marked a lowly cell

Where a pale, drooping widow, in the depth

Of desolate and hopeless poverty,

Prepared the last, scant morsel for her son,

That he might eat and die.
The man of God,

Entering, requested food. Whether that germ

Of self-denying fortitude, which stirs

Sometimes in woman’s soul, and nerves it strong

For life’s severe and unapplauded tasks,

Sprang up at his appeal, or whether he

Who ruled the ravens wrought within her heart,

I cannot say, but to the stranger’s hand

She gave the bread. Then, round the famished boy

Clasping her widowed arms, she strained him close

To her wan bosom, while his hollow eye

Wondering and wishfully regarded her

With ill-subdued reproach.
A blessing fell

From the majestic guest, and every morn

The empty store which she had wept at eve,

Mysteriously replenished, woke the joy

That ancient Israel felt when round their camp

The manna lay like dew. Thus many days

They fed, and the poor famine-stricken boy

Looked up with a clear eye, while vigorous health

Flushed with unwonted crimson his pure cheek,

And bade the fair flesh o’er his wasted limbs

Come like a garment. The lone widow mused

On her changed lot, yet to Jehovah’s name

Gave not the praise, but when the silent moon

Moved forth all radiant, on her star-girt throne,

Uttered a heathen’s gratitude, and hailed

In the deep chorus of Zidonian song

“Astarte, queen of Heaven!”
But then there came

A day of woe. That gentle boy, in whom

His mother lived, for whom alone she deemed

Time’s weary heritage a blessing, died.

Wildly the tides of passionate grief broke forth,

And on the prophet of the Lord her lip

Called with indignant frenzy. So he came,

And from her bosom took the breathless clay,

And bore it to his chamber. There he knelt

In supplication that the dead might live.

He rose, and looked upon the child. His cheek

Of marble meekly on the pillow lay,

While round his polished forehead the bright curls

Clustered redundantly. So sweetly slept

Beauty and innocence in death’s embrace,

It seemed a mournful thing to waken them.

Another prayer arose,—and he, whose faith

Had power o’er nature’s elements, to seal

The dripping cloud, to wield the lightning’s dart,

And soon, from death escaping, was to soar

On car of flame up to the throne of God,

Long, long, with laboring breast and lifted eyes,

Solicited in anguish. On the dead

Once more the prophet gazed. A rigor seemed

To settle on those features, and the hand,

In its immovable coldness, told how firm

Was the dire grasp of the insatiate grave.

The awful seer laid down his humble lip

Low to the earth, and his whole being seemed

With concentrated agony to pour

Forth in one agonizing, voiceless strife

Of intercession. Who shall dare to set

Limits to prayer, if it hath entered heaven,

And won a spirit down to its dense robe

Of earth again?
Look! look upon the boy!

There was a trembling of the parted lip,

A sob,—a shiver,—from the half-sealed eye

A flash like morning,—and the soul came back

To its frail tenement.
The prophet raised

The renovated child, and on that breast

Which gave the life-stream of its infancy

Laid the fair head once more.
If ye would know

Aught of that wildering trance of ecstasy,

Go ask a mother’s heart, but question not

So poor a thing as language. Yet the soul

Of her of Zarephath, in that blest hour

Believed, and with the kindling glow of faith

Turned from vain idols to the living God.